KHOJAMALA, Afghanistan – Amid scenes of poverty, chaos and piteous despair, Afghan refugees told Wednesday of how the Taliban have unleashed a new wave of terror in direct retaliation for America's bombing raids.
Chanting Islamic militiamen swarmed into villages behind their front lines just hours after the high-level attacks began a week ago, murdering hundreds of men, raping women and girls and conscripting teenage boys.
The revenge attacks have triggered a fresh exodus of refugees who brave the journey across a no-man's-land to Northern Alliance territory, crowding into camps already teeming with thousands of families living with little food and no housing.
"They came the day after the bombing started and accused people of being American spies," Buzar Boy, a farmer from the village of Dasht-i Archi, said after slipping across the front lines on horseback with his wife and five children, aged between 2 and 13.
"They raped some of the women and took away more than 100 men," he said. "Some of the younger men have been forced to join the Taliban and others have been taken to prisons in Kandahar and Mazar-i Sharif. But some have just disappeared, and we are certain that they have been killed.
"This has happened not just in our village, but in every other village in the region. The Taliban looted homes, poured gasoline into the front doors and then set them ablaze. It was not just Afghan Taliban who did this, but Pakistanis and Chechens. Uzbeks, too. And they were all as bad as each other. They screamed at us we were taking the Americans' side, but none of us were. We just wanted to farm our land."
It was nothing new to the people of Dasht-i Archi. When the Taliban overran the village 17 months ago, they killed 50 men in a 30-day spree, shooting them and beating them to death in their homes and in the streets. The victims were ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, whom the largely Pashtun Taliban suspected of supporting the Northern Alliance.
Buzar, a careworn figure who looks a decade or two older than his 30 years, gazed around the makeshift camp at Khojamala that is now his family's home. The more fortunate here are living under tarpaulins, but most are surviving under shelters made of rush matting, and a few have retreated into holes that they have hacked into earth baked hard by four years of drought. The only food is from aid agencies. Three children, ages 5, 3, and 8 months, have died of hypothermia in the past two weeks.
More than 150 refugees have come from Dasht-i Archi since the bombing started, joining almost 1,000 people from the same village who fled to Alliance-held territory during the previous killing spree.
The refugees here say that countless families have been caught by the Taliban in the past week as they attempted the eight-hour horse ride across Kalakata ridge at night. The men are always shot and the women and children are simply sent back.
Refugees in nearby camps at Nowabad and Lala Gozar had similar tales of the Taliban terrorizing civilians in retaliation for the bombing. They all said one man appears to be in command of the vengeful Taliban: Mullah Mira Ahmad, a fanatic known as "The Killer from Kandahar."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says there are now an estimated 1.2 million refugees in Afghanistan, in addition to the 3.58 million who have fled the country.
Western leaders are expressing alarm. President Chirac of France wants a "global conference" to find ways of increasing the flow of aid, an initiative Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, supports. The people of Khojamala are desperate for aid. But they appear united in wanting more bombing raids.
"We want to see more and more bombs fall and we want to see the Taliban destroyed," said Buzar.